My candy story begins with an oft-told tale I call “The Jelly Bean Incident.” I relate the story at length at the beginning of Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure, so I’ll just give you the punch line here: when I offered a few jelly beans to a little pre-school friend, his parents flipped out. I mean, you-might-as-well-give-him-crack flipped out. It was a tense moment.
What I don’t talk about in the book is what happened next.
After I had safely locked the jelly beans/crack away that day, we all headed to the beach. The mom had packed a snack hamper for the kids. Inside: juice boxes and a new convenience store item called “Smuckers Uncrustable Peanut-butter and Jelly,” which is a frozen pouch of white bread-like material surrounding a layer of peanut butter and jelly. Nutritionally, this snack is the equivalent of a candy bar washed down by a lollipop. But somehow, the similarity of the contents was not what mattered to these parents. What mattered was the difference in form: candy on one side, sandwich on the other.
We didn’t just disagree. We were on different planets. To me, the sugar of the jelly beans seemed identical to the sugar of the jelly sandwich or the apple juice box. To them, they were absolutely unlike. I thought they were ignorant hypocrites. They thought I was drugging my child, and threatening to drug theirs, with a harmful and addictive substance.
But it wasn’t really that one of us was right or wrong. It was that when we looked at those jelly beans, we weren’t seeing the same thing. I saw a treat. They saw a menace. I saw love. They saw danger. Not just the physical danger of four grams of sugar. But a deeper, more terrible kind of danger, the danger that lurks just outside your field of vision, the danger that makes you get up in the middle of the night just to check if your baby is breathing, the danger that causes your heart to race when you lose sight of your child in the grocery aisle.
Candy has been viewed with deep suspicion ever since the revolution in machinery made it possible to manufacture candy on a large scale. In the late 1800s, confectioners were repeatedly accused of selling candies to children that were “adulterated” with fillers and toxins. When a child got sick in the early 1900s, it was often blamed on poisons in their candy. A piece of candy might be a trap, a trick, a murderous camouflage. Today we still worry that someone might put arsenic in a Pixie Stick or needles in a Snickers. As soon as trick-or-treating is done, we search and seize the suspicious morsels from our kids’ treat bags. Candy itself is seen as a potent addictive drug with lethal side effects ranging from hyperactivity to diabetes and heart disease.
Even when it’s not a matter of physical peril, candy speaks the alluring and dangerous language of transgression and vice. The pleasure of candy is “sinful” and “decadent.” We hear: “The candy dish in the office is too tempting,” and “I’m addicted to the sugar high.” Candy is temptation, contamination, addiction, ruin. Candy is the stranger with a sinister lure: “Come here, little girl, I’ve got a lollipop for you.”
Perhaps as adults we can allow ourselves a little bit of fun on the chocolate wild side. But children are vulnerable, and they don’t know any better. They can’t save themselves from the seductive temptation of candy. That is our job.
For most of the mothers I know, the candy question is posed as a sharp divide between “before” and “after.” Once junior gets his hands on a lollipop, there’s no going back. More than any other childhood experience, the first taste of candy is like the Biblical fall, an entry into knowledge and experience that can’t be undone. Withholding candy prolongs the innocence of our babies as they leave our arms and our bosoms and enter the “real world” of school and playground. We can’t control what they see on TV or what they learn in school or what they overhear on the street, but we can control what goes into their bodies, or at least we can try. The next time we will worry so much will be when our kids lose their virginity, and it says something about the candy worries that they look so much like sexual worries. It’s the old forbidden fruit story: the bite of the candy apple as Original Sin.
Of course, the big irony is that one of the most potent symbols of childhood innocence is candy. Candy is front and center in the idyllic images and experiences of American childhood: CandyLand, piñatas, Easter egg hunts, candy canes, Hanukkah gelt, trick-or-treating. Candy and children seem to go together naturally: sweet, fun, and frivolous, far away from work and care. Candy is brought out for celebrations and special occasions, as though candy were the physical embodiment of happiness and joy.
That’s what makes candy so confusing, such a volatile site for conflict and confrontation. When we talk about whether to give our kids candy, we’re really talking about all of these things: innocence and sin, love and danger. We’re talking about what kind of parents we are, and what we can or must do to protect our children. We’re talking about children’s desire and satisfaction, and how comfortable we feel with the notion that children have their own pleasures. We’re talking about whether we can control our children’s bodies and how we can keep them safe.
When I was growing up, I learned all the wrong lessons about candy, and as a consequence, candy tortured me. But I want to do better for my kid. I want to teach her to tell the difference between food—real food, not those “food-like substances”—and candy. I want her to learn to nourish her body with good food. And I want her to be able to enjoy the treat of candy without feeling guilty, and without feeling overwhelmed with desire for a pleasure that is forbidden. I want her to have confidence in her own appetite, to trust food, and to trust candy too. And why not? After all, it’s just candy.
Samira Kawash - author of Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure – has a Ph.D. in literary studies from Duke University and is a professor emerita at Rutgers University. She is the author of Dislocating the Color Line and the founder of the website Candyprofessor.com. She can be found on Twitter @CandyProfessor.